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I first met Jeff Stephens in a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. I am a big big fan of Umpqua Bank’s brand and it turns out he helped to create it. Now he’s the founder and CEO of Creative Brand Communications dedicated to helping credit unions think differently about this boring thing we call banking. So I asked him what he saw as the future of marketing.

What’s your 2020 vision of credit union marketing?

What I’d like to see is that credit union marketing in 2020 won’t really seem like marketing at all.  I think it will be about creating an “ownership” experience—making members really feel like members and owners, not just customers.  The day to day member experience will be the marketing.  I know there are readers out there saying “we do that now,” but even if that’s true, they’re isolated examples, and are not overtly obvious enough to the outside world.  And notice, I’m saying “different than banks,” not “better than banks.”  CU’s need to realize the distinction between trying to be better, and trying to be different, and need to focus on “different” much more.  I think the difference—the actual differences, not just the spoken differences—between credit unions and banks will have to become totally, painfully clear, to the point where the distinction is brutally obvious.  Credit unions will be apples, banks will be oranges.  Not just Gala vs. Braeburn apples..nobody can see that distinction, and nobody cares.  Diff. Fer. Rent. Not better.

If you had to pick one of the dying marketing mediums eulogized in my series (TV, radio, newspaper, direct mail)  to give life support to – which one would it be? Why?

I would give life support to direct mail.  The future of marketing is obviously moving toward single conversations, one-on-one, between people.  If the industry can learn to convert direct mail from a one-way broadcast type of medium into a targeted tool that facilitates TWO-WAY conversation, I think we could pull it off death row.

What is your definition of social media?

I believe social media is real people talking WITH other real people, about stuff they want to talk about.  Simple as that.  Clearly the CU industry thinks social media is specifically about websites where you have a profile and “friends,” but in my mind social media is much much broader than that.  In most cases, today’s social media efforts by credit unions are really just the same old stuff CU’s have always been doing (talking AT people, trying to fit in and be cool, talking about money all the time, etc.), but just in a new venue.  As Seth Godin talks about in Meatball Sundae, you can’t just use the new tools to execute your old marketing strategies.  Social media requires acknowledging that your new marketing is not really marketing at all.

Music and video stores are almost extinct thanks to companies like Apple and Netflix. What industry do you think is on the verge of collapse? Why?

Sorry to provide such an “expected” answer, but I honestly feel the retail banking industry is on the verge.  Not the small business banking, commercial banking or investments industries, but the banking services for the average Joe individual customer/member.  I say this because a) the products are soooo commoditized, b) the electronic channels have made them so self-service/DIY, and c) the experience of consuming these products/services is so generic and d) the internet has erased geographic boundaries, meaning all banks and credit unions are competing with all other banks and credit unions across the country. In other words, I believe we’re seeing a shift in leverage:  the retail credit union/bank needs that customer worse than the customer needs the credit union/bank.  And that will cause a big change.

If Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos started a financial institution, how would they market it?

I think their marketing would not feel much like marketing at all.  I think they would focus on two things: 1) obsessing over how you feel when you use the product (think of how when the iPhone came out, you wanted other people to see you using it because it made you look cool. You wanted bystanders to ask, ‘woah is that an iPhone?!’), and 2) they would make sure their business model itself was interesting enough that it was worth talking about (think free shipping, no-hassle returns, etc. like Zappos)

Best and worst marketing moments of 2009. What comes to mind?

Best Marketing Moments:  I think the “Best Job in the World” campaign by Queensland Tourism folks was great.  Very engaging, smart and buzzworthy.

Worst Marketing Moments:  The Skittles Twitter debacle was certainly among the worst.  This was a great example of a company misunderstanding the purpose and application of a medium like Twitter, and trying to manipulate it for their own benefit.

Ginger or Mary Ann?

Mary Ann.  Grrrr, baby.  Very grrr.

Creative Brand Communications (CBC) specializes in multi-sensory marketing and brand development. CBC stands for the brand development marketing agency for progressive banks and credit unions, known for its utter disregard for conventional wisdom and absolute regard for powerful thinkers.

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January 2010